Grey Harlowe Sampler: “The Winner”

I wasn’t going to do much with this story, as it is only horror fiction in a tangential sense, but given the inevitable fall out from our recent Powerball Fever in the U.S., I thought it might have some relevance to a few out there.

*

Fairy tales almost never come to pass for those notorious Quiet Girl types.  Which is why Willow Asher almost never did anything that was supposed to work out in fairy tale fashion.

She had, in fact, been so quiet she had barely managed to graduate high school.  Smart and hardworking, but stuck in one of the last Oregon public schools that was socially and academically ruthless, no teacher would place her in any remarkable category.  For this reason, she hadn’t even considered college, and had not considered much beyond the job at the used bookstore she had taken after graduation.

A boyfriend or even any close friends were completely out of the question, as she could barely speak loudly enough to order at Star bucks.  She spent most nights alone in her cheap apartment, reading, or tending to her one pet, a stray tabby, or face down on her purple, second hand sofa, exhausted by her tiny slice of the world.

So when she found herself the sole ticket holder for a seventy nine million dollar March lottery jackpot, shock would have been too mild a term to describe her reaction.  She had purchased the ticket on a lark, in the small grocery store by her home because the staff talked even less than Willow did.  It was her second lottery entry in her life, and at the time, she had smiled at her own foolishness, glad she had only spent two dollars.  Might as well have thrown the money out your car window, her lottery hating grandfather had said of her first purchase at age eighteen.  She imagined he would have said the same about this one.

But when she’d checked the winning numbers, also on a lark, and saw them to be an exact match to those on her ticket, Willow found herself, for all of forty-eight hours, believing in miracles for quiet girls after all.

Two days later, she was sitting in the state lottery office, waiting to talk to an employee from what they called their claims department.  She had taken the day off for this appointment, and driven twenty miles from her apartment in Clayton to Salem, which was, even for a small state capital, much busier and louder than Willow preferred.

After a tedious and, for Willow’s type, nerve wracking experience, a handsome black man approached her in the waiting area.

“Willow Asher?”

“Yes,” she managed to reply.

“Why don’t you come with me.”  His voice, while friendly, held a twinge of reticence in it, as if he and Willow were transgressing into foreign territory more mortals were rarely allowed.

They sat down in a tastefully decorated corner office, and the man introduced himself as Mr. Robinson.  He asked her if she was sure her numbers were the winning ones for the draw date in question.  She read the date on the ticket and then the numbers.  He asked her where she had purchased the ticket and for a description of the store itself.  Haltingly, she identified it as the Shop N’ Save on Amberson Street in Clayton.

Robinson gave a brief glance at his computer screen, then leaned back in his chair.  “We just have to make sure you’re the one who actually bought it,” he explained.  “A lot of people try to pass off lost or stolen tickets as their own.”

“Really?”

Robinson smiled at her, half-cynicism, half something Willow would have described as pity.

After several seconds, while he readjusted his chair and typed a bit on his keywords, he asked,

“Are you sure you want to cash this ticket now, Ms. Asher?”

Willow blinked.

“Because if you’re not completely sure,” Robinson continued, “you still have time.  These things don’t expire for a year.”

She opened her mouth, then closed it.  Her gaze drifted to the window at her right.

“It’s important to really think it over.  These jackpots come along with a lot of responsibilities.  Do you have a lawyer?”

“My uncle’s a lawyer, but he lives in Tennessee.  I work at a bookstore and it’s not like I need legal advice at the job.”

Now Robinson seemed genuinely concerned.  “Okay…can your parents help you out there?”

Willow opened her hands reluctantly.

“My mom moved to Vancouver after the divorce.  My dad met a woman in Rome and has lived there ever since.”

“All right, the lawyer thing isn’t exactly necessary.  Most people don’t use them, but with a jackpot this size, I usually recommend it.”

“Why would I need a lawyer?”

“Because…I probably shouldn’t admit this, but sometimes people have a hard time collecting all their winnings from the state.  Some have legal problems that catch up to them after they win.  Tax issues, old debts.  You don’t have student loans do you?  Child support, anything like that?  Because that gets taken right out of the jackpot before it even gets to you.”

“Uh, no,” Willow answered, taken aback.  “I’m not in college, no kids.  I’m only nineteen.”

“Nineteen?”  Robinson pursed his lips, ran a hand over his bald head.

“I can’t tell you what to do, but my best suggestion is that you get in touch with your family, find an attorney.  Even if it’s your uncle in Tennessee.”

The drive back to Clayton, a semi-rural community a third the size of Salem, was a bumpy one that afternoon.  Not in terms of road conditions, Oregon spent a rather massive amount of money keeping its roads free from potholes, but because her talk with Mr. Robinson had left her profoundly unsettled (not that it took much for Willow to reach that emotional state.)

She slept on her couch that night under and old afghan and the warmth of her tabby.  The cat, no fool, could sense trouble in the air; their near silent life about to go awry, never to be the same again.

 

Her return to the bookstore, The Book Worm, was uneventful.  Maybe one of the advantages of being born a quiet girl was an ability to keep big secrets.  She had told no one about the ticket, the money, or her trip to the state capital.  After Willow dutifully clocked in that morning, no one even asked her where she’s been.

After a morning of taking orders over the phone, stocking the shelves with new arrivals, (the Book Worm kept a small supply of new books to attract the local literati) a strange thing began to occur.  A man approached her at the counter and asked with the military history section was.  She dutifully pointed him to the back of the store, next to the bathroom and a closet sized spaced tactfully called the employee break room.

At about two p.m., a woman came to the counter with the same request: military history.  The second time, Willow began sizing them up.  They were entirely ordinary for their Western Oregon customer base, mid-fifties or so, dressed casually in Danskos and Birkenstocks.  Before closing there were three more, one a fortyish woman with dark hair, and a pair who could have had been her grandparents.  All wanting the military history shelf.  Five minutes before the end of her shift, she looked at it.  The odd crowd had vanished.

Not one to dwell on peculiarities, it was not in the quite girls’ nature, she clocked out, scooped up the ancient pea coat she’d had since tenth grade, and headed for the door.  That was until her boss waved to her from that back corner of the store.

It was rare for her employer, Neil, to need to interact her.  Willow, for the most part, never made mistakes and was always willing to do favors for the rest of the staff.  It didn’t help that he was holding the employee break room door open, which meant she was likely in for one of those Ominous Private Conversations every worker dreads.

Allowing the door to close completely, Neil said, “These individuals would like to speak to you.  Normally, I would have asked your permission, but they didn’t think you would agree if I did.  And neither did I.”

Willow, vaguely annoyed, asked if “the individuals” had told Neil the reason they desired and audience with her.

“Yes,” he admitted.  “It’s none of my business, I know, but you should listen to them.”

Then he left, and she noticed his footsteps didn’t fade until the door had shut and latched.

Willow, now positive this was about the lottery win, sat gingerly in the one seat they’d left for her, at the head of the table.

The first man to come into the store looking for military history books was the first to open his mouth.  He was middle aged, grey hair, scraggly beard.

“I’m William.  Mr. Robinson told us about your situation.  He said to apologize for springing this meeting on you, but there are certain people he meets at work whom he thinks will need our input.”

“Consider us the welcoming committee for new lottery winners,” the fortyish woman with dark hair spoke up.  “I’m Sheila; we’re here to give you some recommended dos-and-don’ts about cashing the ticket.”

“Stuff I can find on the Internet,” said Willow, now profoundly irritated.

“Ah, I don’t think you’ll find anything like our stories online,” said the grandmotherly type.  “They don’t usually publicize the really bad outcomes.”

“Hey, I read this story,” Willow snapped.  “If I recall, the town villagers stone the winner to death in the end.”  She moved to get out of her chair.

“Just here us out,” said William.  “Twenty minutes of your time, tops.”

“It’s for your safety,” Sheila said.

“My safety?”  Now she was interested.  Physical safety is something the quiet girl must be perpetually mindful of.  She sat back down.

“You may not have heard very much in the media,” Sheila explained, “but lottery winners face a lot of violence.  In capitalist societies, almost everyone hates someone they think ‘got away’ with money she didn’t earn.  To put it bluntly, people hate lottery winners.”

“Some of it’s just greed,” William continued for her.  “A wife who feels entitled to the entirety of her husbands winnings, so she poisons him so she won’t have to get it through alimony.”

“And then there lottery murders based solely on disputes over the ticket’s true owner,” said Sheila.  In the South a few years back, a boyfriend and girlfriend wound up a murder/suicide after he decided the ticket was his because she bought it with his money.”

“There are also those deaths not based on greed,” said the elderly gentleman at the end of the table.  William and Sheila fell silent at his words.

“Our son won the lottery in 2006,” he began, before his wife’s hand on his arm stopped him.

“Peter, don’t.  She’s obviously not that type.”

“What ‘type’ is that Phyllis?  Matthew wasn’t that type, either.”  The old man’s voice, while steady, had developed a noticeable edge to it.

“She means drugs,” Peter said harshly.  Matthew wasn’t we thought of as a drug addict, never drank to excess, graduated summa cum laude from Stanford.  Seemed to have his life together.  Then two years later, after news of his twenty million dollar win started to trickle down to his friends, he began hosting these wild parties, which got wilder and wilder until he was found dead on a Malibu beach at twenty four.”

Willow looked at the table’s ugly, scuffed wood face.

“I’m very sorry,” she said.

“It’s when you start believing you’ll have no more material problems that you get yourself in trouble,” Peter said.  “And those lotteries encourage it, goddamn it.  They encourage it.”

At this point, Sheila stood up, apologizing for having to make and early departure.  It was brief, but Willow saw William affectionately squeeze Sheila’s elbow.

“My story, if you’re curious, happened many years ago.  Before these mega-jackpots began to crop up every other week.  I think I only won about ten million, and before I know it, I’m on the phone with the IRS, claiming I had misfiled a bunch of returns and had huge fines to pay.  I was running a respectable video rental place—remember when that was a thing?—so threats from the IRS were a big deal.  Within a year, and that was with the best attorney I could find, they’d taken it all.”

“They can do that?”

“They can and they did, despite an utter lack of guilt on my part.  I filed for bankruptcy.  I got a divorce.”

“That’s who you’ll have to watch out the most,” said Phyllis, whom Willow realized was much wiser and deeper than she had seemed.  “The IRS likes to take lottery winners out for a walk.  If you cash the ticket, that is.”

“More than a few winners don’t,” William told her.  “I wish I hadn’t.”

Willow left The Book Worm by the back entrance that night, into a parking lot with a stream rushing past it.  She was surprised to see Sheila leaning against the stream’s guard rails.

While Willow tried to decide whether to start running or not, Sheila raised her hand.  Slowly, her feet dragged by a sense of forbearing and urgency, Willow walked to end of the parking lot.

“Did you win the lottery, too?”  Willow asked, realizing Sheila was the only one who hadn’t disclosed her story.  Sheila gave her a grim smile that said you’re not wrong.

“So, what happened?”

Sheila looked furtively to see if the lot was truly empty.  Then she said,

“Well, it’s pretty simple.  My ex-husband was enraged that I didn’t have to share any of my paltry eight million dollars with him.  Screw him, I thought.  Then I did what most winners do, I bought a nicer house and took a cruise through Scandinavia.  When I came back, he’d filed papers demanding full custodial and legal custody of our son and daughter.  And when it went to court, he won.  He convinced the judge that my new found fortune had turned me into an irresponsible jet setter who no longer valued our children’s well being.”

“What does that mean, he won?  As in, the court just handed them over?”  Willow had been just barely eighteen when her parents divorced, and custody had not been an issue for them.

“We had the week to say goodbye, but then he just took them to parts unknown.  Arizona, last I heard.  Sometimes, Jesse sends me some photos.  Josh, who was only four, hasn’t ever contacted me.”  Sheila made her confession with a mixture of remembered love and hollowed out exhaustion.  Willow felt quite awful for her.

“Be careful.  Take care of yourself.  And here’s my number in case anything happens.”  Then she walked away into the twilight.  When Willow turned the card over, she was aghast to see Sheila herself was an attorney.  An attorney and a lottery winner and her ex had managed to steal her children anyway.

It didn’t take much after that.  Willow, who had never wanted riches anyway, and who knew, in her heart, that her quiet girl ways would bend and break under their weight, took the ticket of her pocket and threw it into the rushing water.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s